Jim woke up to the sound of the morning wind screaming over his window bars like a banshee from hell. He rolled over in his straw bed and shivered slightly as the cold air sucked the heat from his extremities. His breath billowed out of his mouth and dissipated into nothingness in front of him. The massive barn, that Supreme Governor Smash was keeping him in at the present moment, wasn’t the warmest place on earth, but it was still better than being outside in the snow. The temperature in the barn seemed always to be at an unsettling level; barely warm enough to sustain life. Jim was beginning to learn that the Wichita winters were cold and harsh, just like the people he worked with.
“The atmosphere never got like this back on the farm in Winterberry,” whispered Jim to the empty room. He was growing fond of talking to himself, a habit he never dreamed he would have picked up. His pointer finger traced out the raised lettering in his left hand. W. T. S. He had been branded his first day on the estate and was no longer his own property. Even if, by some miracle, he escaped this nightmare everyone would recognize the scarring. The feeling of being trapped overwhelmed his chest cavity as he let out a deep sigh.
Jim was owned by the state. Or was it Mr. Smash? Jim couldn’t see the difference anymore. Something inside of him had broken permanently during his stay. He felt it break a few months back, but it wasn’t like a big break, like how a dropped pot shatters into pieces on the floor. It was like a little crack had formed in his soul. Jim thought about the old milk pale back on the farm in Winterberry. It had been cracked by their she-goat Nina. The crack would cause the contents of the pale to leak out slowly. If you weren’t careful you would lose all the milk in the pale over a few hours. Jim was losing something inside he couldn’t put his finger on.
He looked around his makeshift cell at all the wooden studs that held the roof up. He had been placed in one of the storage rooms inside the massive wooden structure and given just enough resources to survive during the winter months. He was treated much like all the rest of the cattle in the barn yard. The only exception to that rule was that he was to have no human contact for six months straight. It was part of the breaking process he had overheard one of the workhands say while feeding the other animals. They said that if you are going to have a good slave you need to break them first by stripping them of their humanity. The creature had to believe they were no longer “human”.
The only “human” contact Jim got these days he wouldn’t consider it human contact at all. Jesse Franklin was always about Mr. Smash’s business around the Tarmac Desert, but when he came into town again he made Jim his business. There was an obsessive way about how the man worked; like he was an artist weaving a tapestry of misery. Every thread had to be just right or all the effort would be spoiled to the naked eye.
The outlaw had his strange quirks too, like how he was always talking to himself, sometimes yelling and throwing farm equipment through walls. Every time he had one of these fits it seemed the people in the Smash Estate would turn a blind eye. Jim thought Jesse might be drunk, but never really saw the signs of it. He never smelled the alcohol on the outlaw’s breath or heard the slur in his raspy voice. Jim’s dad spoke of people like him, people with inner devils that no man could see.
Jesse was a man with all kinds of devils. Jim continued to trace the outline of the scar on his palm; this time backwards. He pictured the ugly devils in his family’s bible back in Winterberry. When he was younger; he would pull the good book off the shelf and look at all the liturgical images inside. He loved the story of the fight between the two Goddess of creation. Jim could still hear his mother voice in his head asking him questions about the story. He could still see her holding Sissy in her arms as a baby.
“Did the Goddess of Creation give us the earth, Jim?” He could here is mother ask.
Jim smiled at the sweet voice of his mother; how he longed to be home again. Jim whispered his response so as not to be heard by the workhands, “No, they were given the earth as a test of obedience and accountability, just like how dad gave me Nina the goat to look after. To see if I could do it before moving on to bigger things.”
“That’s right Jim,” he could hear his mother’s voice “and did they pass?”
“No,” said Jim with a frown; his breath leaving his lungs sharply. He hated that part of the book; as did so many preachers around the Tarmac Desert. “They both failed the test, and as punishment for their failure, were left here to take care of us for the rest of existence.”
“One of the Goddesses tries to make up for the failure by serving mankind; hoping that as she did, her part of the punishment would be lifted. What’s her name?”
“The Lady of the Desert.” said Jim.
“And the other sister who undoes all her hard work. What’s her name?”
“Scylla” said Jim, “The Lady of the Night”
Jim could see the pictures of the Bible back at home clearly in his head. He could see the two Goddesses walking out into the Tarmac Desert yelling and bickering one to the other; one trying to forgive and the other holding a grudge.
Jim’s favorite of the two, although he never mentioned the heresy to his mother or father, was “Scylla”. Not because she was bad, but because the artist had made her prettier than her golden haired sister. The superstitious preachers in town believe that the outlaws of the Tarmac were given their abilities by Scylla, although the holy writ never confirmed this. At the time, this concept fascinated Jim completely to the core. He had seen the actual side of these outlaws first hand while robbing the bullet train. Had seen the destruction and pain they could cause the world; and it was nothing to aggrandize. So many lives were lost or ruined because of them.
Jim’s thoughts turned to Maenad at that moment. The legendary outlaw had not come for him like he thought he would, and the feeling hurt more than Jim could care to admit. It felt like being abandoned by a trusted friend. He stopped tracing the scar in his palm and pushed the negative thought from his head as best he could. Maenad was different than other outlaws, wasn’t he? Maenad certainty didn’t have the cruelty that Jesse imposed upon him, but when Jim thought about the matter deeper he really couldn’t tell and that frightened him a little. Maenad was a man that had his secrets and spoke so very little of himself.
The preachers in town said that the helpers of Scylla could take many forms, and only a good read of the Bible could help a wayward soul discern them. Maybe that’s what Jim really needed more of in his life; the Bible. Jim vowed silently to himself at that moment that if he got out of this hellish nightmare alive, he would pursue a life of understanding. He would become a preacher, and learn to see thing as they really are.
“Oh, Lady of The Desert,” whispered Jim to the air around his cell, “If you free me from this nightmare, I will vow to serve thee!”
Jim waited in the silence for an answer, his heart thudding softly in his chest. The dark grey cell gave way to the morning light at that moment. Jim’s eyes watched as a circle of sunlight began to form on the ground in the center of the room. The sudden contrast of the light filled his thoughts with wonder; could this be the hand of providence? Six months of monotonous labor could do a lot to the human mind, and Jim could feel his thoughts slipping into madness each and every day. The only thing that seemed to keep him sane was the dreams that he had at night. Jim dreamed often of the farm back in Winterberry. Sissy would have seen this sudden appearance of light as a sign.
“I love you, Sissy,” whispered Jim sadly.
The circle of light traveled slowly over to the door. Jim listened intently for the footsteps of his cruel master to appear. The barn was relatively quiet; the only thing that could be heard was the sound of the other animals shifting around in their pens. Jim pulled his blankets closer to his frame and shivered with anxiety. It was always hard to hear when Jesse was coming. As a matter-of-fact, it was near impossible to tell when the outlaw was coming. The man didn’t make the usual sounds that all the other servants in the Mansion made. He was smooth and deadly just like all the outlaws Jim had read about in his books. Using your ears was useless; you had to feel when he was around. You had to sense it before it happened. Jim learned to sense Jesse’s presence a long time ago.
“I know you’re there,” said Jim his eyes moved up from the light on the floor to the thick wooden door. In some weird way, it felt like “The Lady of the Desert” was guiding him. The room was quiet now, as if trying to keep a secret.
“I know you’re watching and listening,” said Jim. “There’s no use hiding it.”
The thick wooden door to his little room opened up slowly, revealing a dark figure standing in the hallway. The outlaw’s eyes could be seen barely from underneath the rim of the hat. His posture slightly loose and his dark jeans covered in mud.
“You in hear talking to yourself, boy?” said Jesse flatly in a raspy voice; his expression softened. Snow was now covering his broad shoulders and his hand was resting on his seven shooter. He looked around Jim’s cells for anyone who might be hiding. “Talking to yourself is a bad habit to develop... People might start talking about you behind your back. Might accuse you of being all sorts of crazy; like your heads full of jangle snakes.”
Jim knew that Jesse was talking about himself. Jesse wasn’t and idiot; he could hear what everyone in the estate was saying. Jim said nothing; just let the comment about the outlaws sanity die right then and there. Jim knew that talking back would mean a beating.
“Did Maenad teach you that little trick?” asked Jesse.
Jim looked at the outlaw confused. “What trick?”
Jesse smiled at this; as if seeing something obvious that no one else could see. He lifted up a hand and placed a tooth pick in his mouth. The outlaw chewed on the end of it and pushed it back and forth on his lips. He was thinking to himself again. Jim could already tell things were going to be different this morning; and it scared him. Jesse never hesitated on anything, and yet, the outlaw was in no particular hurry to get Jim out of bed.
“The desert preachers say a lot of crazy things about outlaws, Jim. They say that outlaws can hear a person’s soul as it move through the ether.” Jesse indicated to the cold air around the room. “The preacher’s even say that the outlaw’s powers come from an unholy source. They say that all Scylla needs is a willing soul full of destructive potential. And when she has found the perfect specimen she follows them until they have a breaking moment; a moment when the strain becomes too much.” Jesse walked into the cell slowly and pulled the tooth pick from his mouth. He held the wooden sliver in front of Jim and broke the things in half.
Jim didn’t know why but he jump when it snapped.
“You’re a broken thing, Jim,” said Jesse with a knowing smile, “and she has been following you ever since you left the bullet train with Maenad. I watched here climb into the trailer with you myself. She was the one that gave you the dreams.” Jesse pointed to the open cell door now; no one was there. The outlaw was talking as if someone were there standing in the door frame, “She takes many forms Jim, and she’s been waiting out there in the cold, waiting for the right moment to give you a gift. You just need to break all the way and let go of your humanity. You just need to snap like a little twig, and I am here to help facilitate that.”
Jim looked away from the outlaw and stared at the floor. His thoughts were grasping desperately at the image of a broken bucket. Jim was the broken bucket; was Scylla really waiting for him to break all the way? Jim looked up. The feeling of being broken inside became more pronounced, “Is that who you talk to all the time. Is it Scylla that pulls your strings?”
“It’s Scylla that pulls all outlaws strings. I saw her cradling Maenad in the desert just outside the bullet train when we found you. She was trying desperately to keep the man alive; for some reason she loves that man. I even saw her whisper thoughts into Mr. Smash’s head. Telling him to keep the worthless outlaw alive.” Jesse chuckled to himself, “Smash was going to kill Maenad but changed his mind right then and there.”
Jim felt cold inside at this revelation, as if the “Lady of The Night” was following Maenad while they were robbing the bullet train. He didn’t want to believe it, “Your lying! Why should I even believe you?”
“She’s sitting right next to you, boy.” Jesse’s head nodded to the empty space beside Jim’s cot. “Scylla’s was the one that convinced that stupid airhead of a daughter to try and marry you. She saw the potential you had Jim, right then and there. Scylla knew that you could be useful in full filling her plans of bring peace to the people of the Tarmac.” Jesse pointed at Jim. He sounded completely convinced, “She’s stoking that wounded hand of yours right now. Can you feel it? Try and feel it.”
Jim felt a prickling sensation come over his right hand and up his arm at that moment; the feeling was unsettling and creepy. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he pulled away from whatever it was sitting next to him. Jim shifted his gaze from the empty space back over to Jesse. The outlaw was smiling at him. He was truly seeing something that was there, or was it? Jim didn’t quite know at the moment. His head was spinning with questions. Was he going just as mad as Jesse Franklin was? Would he start seeing things too?
“I won’t break,” said Jim, “This is another one of your mind games!”
Jesse wasn’t even looking at Jim any more. The outlaw was looking at the thing sitting next to him; his dark eyes following the outline. The outlaw was nodding his head as if in conversation. He turned to Jim after a few moments.
“Scylla says she is going to patch up the thing you call the broken bucket. You know, the one that Nina broke. That she is going to make the pain go away,” said Jesse raspy voice flatly, “whatever the hell that means, maybe something from your past?”
Jim looked taken aback by this. He had told no one about the bucket or the goat. He was going to respond when his whole framed saturated with goosebumps as the inside of his chest filled with a sudden glow. The sensation felt like he was being dipped in warm water from head to toe. He screamed with surprise and threw himself off the wooden cot and onto the ground. Jim flailed around on the hard wooden floor kicking and screaming. He was trying to push the feeling away; the feeling of gentle hands on his body. He was going mad! Jim was losing the battle over his mind. How did Jesse do that?
“I don’t want it,” said Jim as he backed himself into the far corner. The sensation left his body cold and trembling. The broken feeling returned to his chest immediately. His heart was pounding at a million miles an hour. His eyes were shifting over the room trying to see the phantom that was somehow over powering his senses. He could see nothing; the light in the cell had gone. The light he had thought was “The Lady of The Desert”.
“I told you he isn’t ready yet,” said Jesse to Jim’s empty cot. The outlaw’s eyes followed the invisible phantom to the door frame of the cell. Jesse pulled another tooth pick from his pocket and placed it into his mouth; rolling it around wildly as he thought. “But he is a hell of a lot closer, soon enough he’ll have eyes for you, and only you.”
Jim swallowed the knot forming in his throat and wrapped his arms around his chest. He was going crazy just like Jesse. He watched as Jesse came over to him and squatted down to his level. The outlaws hot breathe was breathing in and out calmly, “I always thought religion was the drug of the foolish and stupid. I never believed a damn thing anyone said, as a matter-of-fact, I mocked and killed them my whole life. Than I was brought to the quarry by Mr. Smash and everything changed. I became a full blown believer!”
Jim watched as Jesse winced in pained and looked down at the scars in his hands. The outlaw was bleeding again from the scars.
“What happened to you?” ask Jim in a shaky voice. “Why do you serve Smash, and how is it you can see The Lady of The Night?”
Jesse stood up and clinched his fists so tight his knuckles popped. He backed away toward the center of the room clinching his teeth. “I made a deal with the devil Jimbo, that’s what happened. I was tricked by Mr. Smash into a life of servitude without knowing it.” The outlaw grunted. “But the servitude wasn’t to Smash… it was never to Smash.”
“How?” Jim whispered as he watched the outlaw try and control the pain he was under at the present moment. Jim’s gaze jumped from him to the empty room. He was cautiously looking around for the creature that had touched him moments ago. “How did it happen?”
Jesse looked at Jim. His raspy voice felt strained. He looked like a man that was being held back by invisible chains. The outlaw asked his question. “What did Maenad teach you before he went off to prison? Did he say anything?”
Jim was quiet. He watched as his breath left his lips. He was unsure where all this was going. Why did Jesse suddenly want to know about Maenad?
“Did he tell you stories about his brother’s death?” asked Jesse who was gritting his teeth through the pain. He looked at the door suddenly and yelled. “I am getting to it you whore! Can you see I am bloody getting to it?” The outlaw threw his arm out as if pushing something away. “I could get to it easier if you’d let go!”
Jim jumped at the sudden shout.
Jesse was now holding his gun in his hand. He fired a few shots into the air over his head. The animals in the barn began to move and call out. They also were feeling the uneasiness of the situation Jim was being subjected to. Jesse seemed to relax a little as he turned to Jim again. “Did Maenad tell you stories about his brother’s death?”
Jim nodded cautiously as he watched the gun in Jesse’s hands.
“I knew he would,” said Jesse solemnly as he back up and sat down on the cot breathing out a sigh. He seemed to stare off into space as he gathered his thoughts on the subject. “It’s a pretty famous story among the outlaw community here in Wichita City.” He shook his head and looked at the ground. “Did you know that women outlaws hold a different sort of power than men outlaws do? Their almost like gypsies in the way they work their magic.” He laughed and shook his head some more as if seeing something ridiculous in it all. “They call it clouding; women outlaws have the power to haunt the mind of their victim and subject them to a perpetual infatuation called ‘love’… and love can make a man do the dankest things; which is why Conroy got his brains blown out.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Jim, confused.
Jesse’s face went flat as he looked over at Jim. He seemed more serious now than he ever had been before in Jim’s presence. “What can you do when a goddess is in love with her creation? When all she does is talk about it night and day…” Jesse paused and yelled at the thing standing in the room again, “I am getting to it, damn it!”
Jim Jump again. He wanted to be anywhere but here right now.
“Just want you to know the truth about Maenad’s vindication before you start looking at him like a hero. Outlaws deceive their victims very easily. Why, I bet Maenad probably told you something different about what happened that night after the bank robbery. I bet he filled your mind with all sorts of stupid things, but I bet what he forgot to tell you was that he and Conroy were both madly in love with Jessica Maxwell at the time. With the help of Scylla, Jessica had worked her magic on both of them; finding amusement in the tensions she caused between the brothers. It was a nice distraction from her sister.”
Jim was shocked at this, how could Maenad be in love with his brother’s killer? What did Scylla have to do with it all? Love?
“What does this have to do with anything?” asked Jim.
Jesse smiled devilishly, as if enjoying what was coming next. He looked like a school boy about to put a frog in his teacher’s lap. His eyes went between the thing in the room and Jim, “Scylla was deeply jealous of the relationship forming between Maenad and Jessica. The relationship she had created, mind you. She wanted what they had,” Jesse turned and laughed at the open door as loudly as he could. He was no longer talking with Jim. He was staring completely at the thing in the room. “Yes you were, you Wichita whore. Don’t deny it! I can read you like a book and I will damn well say what need to be said in this narrative. You want to be loved!” Jesse belted out in a mocking tone as if teasing a younger sister, “and you have been plotting and scheming ever since! I ain’t stupid!”
Jesse stopped laughing abruptly and gritted his teeth in pain. He got serious as he listened to the thing at the door. It looked like they were having a serious conversation. Jim wondered if he could possibly sneak out while the whole thing was going on. Leave the crazy man to his crazy talk. He frowned as Jesse spoke up.
“I don’t care if you kill me! Heck, you have been threatening to kill me ever since I left the quarry!” The outlaw pointed his gun at the door. “You still need me to do your dirty work!”
Jim’s eyes darted back and forth between the open door and the outlaw.
Jesse Franklin’s body was slammed violently against the back wall at that moment. The outlaw’s body bounced off the wooden beams and slammed into the ceiling with a bang! Jim watched in horror as the outlaw hit the floor at his feet with a thud. He looked like a rag doll. Any normal human would have been crushed by the sudden force. The animals in the barn started baying from all the commotion. It was like all hell had broken loose.
The outlaw, Jesse Franklin, was laughing as he held his ribcage. The cell door slammed loudly and cracked in half with a loud pop. Wooden shards blew out and smacked the far wall. The whole barn began to vibrate violently as an outside wind picked up and hammered into the structure. Jim watched in shear amazement as Jesse came to his knees and straightened his back. He looked hurt, but in good spirits.
“Don’t mind that Jim,” said Jesse. “She gets that way sometimes.”
Jim was going crazy. He didn’t know what to say.
“Woman are sensitive creatures, Jim,” said Jesse in his raspy voice. He smiled a big bloody smile. “Even Goddesses!”
“Goddesses?” ask Jim.
Jesse spit out a wad of blood and saliva. “Where was I?”
Jim shrugged his shoulders because he really didn’t know.
“Conroy,” said Jesse trying to find a train of thought after the violent blow. “It has everything to do with what happened to Conroy, Jim.” He pointed to the broken door. “Scylla staged the whole murder so that she could be with him. Maenad saw it happen and Scylla cheered on the vendetta; knowing that it would break everything apart.” Jesse paused and rubbed his chin. He struggled to get to his feet now. “Maenad’s rage about his brother’s death has made him one of the most infamous outlaws in the history of Wichita City; in the history of the whole Balballing providence up north. Why, did you know that he had killed more men than any other outlaw alive? He’s a force to reckon with all because Scylla, his jealous girlfriend, been helping him the whole way. The poor idiot doesn’t know what’s coming next!”
Jesse started laughing and holding his side. He was limping toward the door now. “She’s got big plans for their life together; and hasn’t told me a darn thing since! Something about bringing peace to everything; what a load of crap!”
Jim frowned at all this new information. He couldn’t tell if Jesse was telling the truth or feeding him a bunch of horse crap. Heck, with all that had just happened he was question reality itself. Did all that really just happen?
Jesse stopped by the door and motioned to Jim. His raspy voice vibrated the wall as he spoke, “Get up boy and get dressed. We have a big day ahead of us.” The outlaw motioned to the room generally. “and all this crazy stuff you witnessed here isn’t even the half of what’s to come. Boy, you’re in for a nightmare!”
Jim stood up as he watched the outlaw leave. He had undergone the most grueling of punishments while at the Smash estate, but this one took it all. Trepidation filled his heart as he got ready and left the small cell.